Letter From Maine: New in Town


Refugees in Kenya walk along the road. Refugees in Kenya walk along the road.

"So we did it," Besteman recalled. "Most of those who made it over here were babies then. They never knew their parents. People in the audience were seeing their moms and dads for the first time. It was very, very moving. There were a lot of stories being shouted out about the people in the slides. We had hundreds of pictures, and they made us show them over and over. Even the pictures of the fields, they were just incredibly excited to see. And just incredibly sad. It was everything they had lost. We played tapes of someone's dad reading his poetry. He had never heard his father's voice before." Besteman had conducted a census of Banta in 1988, when the population was five hundred, and now she presented it in the form of a chart of families. "People went crazy over it. They could account for everyone on the chart. This guy was shot in his field by a Somali. This guy was hacked with machetes and died of infected wounds. This woman was taken by militiamen from a fleeing group, right near the Kenyan border, never seen again. Et cetera, et cetera."

Besteman and I were sitting in her office at Colby. She showed me a color photograph of a family group in an African village, with a grinning little girl in the center. "This beautiful little girl lives in Lewiston now, on Bartlett Street," she said. "Married, with five kids. Her family"--Besteman indicated the others in the photograph--"are all dead."

"Catherine's two events were the turning points--the Bantu got more confident from them," Sheikh Mohamed, a twenty-nine-year-old Bantu, told me. (When I asked about his unusual first name, he laughed and said, "I was a beloved child, so my mother called me Sheikh.") Among other things, the Bantus began requesting, in hospitals and public offices, interpreters who spoke Af-Maay-Maay. Previously, he said, many people had pretended to understand the Somali interpreters, because they feared that the interpreters might get angry if they asked for someone else.

Sheikh Mohamed works as a cashier at Wal-Mart. He is lithe and frank, and his English, which he learned in the camps in Kenya, is good. He did not seem afraid to speak up for himself. But he found the insults and racial slights that the Bantus experienced in Maine--from other Somalis--to be unrelenting. A Bantu friend of his had gone to the Lewiston mosque to pray, "and they told him to come back with six guys to wash the mosque. For free! They still think we work for them!"

One Somali word for a Bantu is Adoon, the same as the word for a slave, and Somalis did not hesitate to use it. At school, according to Sheikh Mohamed, Somali kids were even involving unwitting white kids in the abuse: "A Somali boy tells a white child to go say 'Uf!' to a Bantu child. To us, that means 'You smell bad.' So the Bantu child starts fighting with the white child. But the white child didn't even know what he was saying!" Mohamed described an encounter he had just had with a white child in the public-housing project where he and his family live. "The white child tells me he hates Bantus. I ask him why. He says his Somali friend hates Bantus, and so he does, too."

Seynab Ali and Hawa Ibrahim, the organic farmers, are enrolled in a beginning-English class at the Adult Learning Center. On the afternoon I visited the class, the teacher, Kelley Rudd, was engaging her students in a series of skits. In one, Ali was trying to borrow mangoes from her neighbor, who asked how many she wanted. Ali hesitated, then blurted, "Five dollars!" The class broke up in laughter, and Ali gave me a wry look.

Rudd, who grew up on the northeastern Maine coast, recently spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Turkmenistan, teaching English. Her Turkmen students, she said, were literate in their own language. "Here we're trying to do everything at once," she said. "Speaking, reading, writing, numbers, oral comprehension, plus literacy itself."

Early on, town officials decided that recipients of general assistance could fulfill Maine's welfare work requirement by taking English-as-a-second- language classes. This has been expensive: federal funds for refugee resettlement do not follow people who pursue "secondary migration" -- who move, that is, from the cities where they were first resettled. But the state has begun to help with funding.

Some Somalis have managed to acquire English in Kenyan refugee camps or have middle-class multilingual backgrounds or have already picked up some English in the United States. These students often go into job-training classes with white Americans. But others, particularly the Somali Bantus, have never even held a pen before. There is also the local climate to confront. "In every class with Somalis, we're trying, this time of year, to get them ready for winter," Anne Kemper, who runs the Adult Learning Center, told me. "Talking about snow and ice, how to dress their kids properly for the weather, what a smoke alarm is and what to do if it goes off."

During a break in Rudd's class, I talked to a couple of Bantu men. Our conversation was disrupted, however, by an older, rather imperious Somali woman with a humorless smile, who kept interjecting, "We all Somali. We all same." She wouldn't leave, and the Bantu men withdrew behind polite masks.

I did manage to talk to one young man, an eighteen-year-old Bantu named Osman. He spoke little English, but he made me understand that he had attended high school in Syracuse before moving to Lewiston. He showed me his school I.D.: he had got through two years of American high school with a handful of English words. Refugee children are placed in schools according to their age, not their academic level. Somali parents have been confused by this practice, asking why their illiterate teens are not placed in kindergarten. To an American, the answer--the social dimension--is obvious. But the result is a growing population of alienated, disenchanted Somali youth, unable to compete or succeed.

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This article originally appeared in The New Yorker magazine on December 11, 2006 and appears here with permission from the author.